Raising kids cross-culturally

Here is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, from a few different angles: what it means to parent kids cross-culturally. It’s been really interesting having them in school; it pushes me in ways that I didn’t really have to deal with in Albania so much because they were at home, and our child care person was very open about negotiating cultural differences.

Now that they are immersed in a language they don’t yet speak, I’m also reminded of the migrant children I worked with in the US  – only now the tables are turned. I keep thinking about those little migrant kids, and the challenges they faced, and the strategies we used to help them adapt culturally and learn English, and I feel so much more deeply what all that meant to them and their families. I see how tired my kids are at the end of the morning, even more so when they are with their Spanish-speaking babysitter for the afternoon as well. I understand better what it means for them to have home be a refuge where they can speak English and make themselves understood.

And yet I feel ambivalent about that cultural divide as well, about the little bubble we create within the walls of our apartment, that is somehow separate and disassociated from the world around us. In, but not of, Colombia.

I also think about how the migrant kids were so subject to disapproval and judgment from teachers, sometimes due to factors that arose out of poverty (11 people living in a mobile home – out of necessity – and sharing one bathroom simply won’t shower as often as those who have greater access to hot water and privacy), sometimes due to differing understandings of how to show respect, or even just different expectations about the role of parents in relation to the school. A really great ethnography about these culturally-patterned differences is Con Respeto, a very readable yet theoretically rich examination of just this topic.

So, knowing what I know about middle-class urban Latino cultural patterns, I am not only anticipating but living some cultural disjunctures and thinking a lot about how to manage and negotiate them, particularly with respect to my children.

First has to do with cleanliness and general appearance. For most Latinos, this is vastly more important than for most US Americans. Some recent visitors here commented, “everyone is so dressed up!” US Americans tend overall to dress more casually than Colombians, even more so Bogotanos, and this extends to children as well as adults. The other little girls at our preschool come with hair carefully combed and braided. Their faces are perfectly clean, their clothes in good repair, their shoes are clean. In contrast, I bathe my kids once a week, and I never brush or comb Illyria’s hair at all (instead, I pour on tons of conditioner when I do wash it, so at least it´s free of tangles). Oz’s shoes are scribbled all over with green marker, yet I let him wear them to school. A Colombian mother with any other option would not.

And I don’t push the issue. And that right there is another huge cultural difference. Although we do set boundaries for our kids, and we do discipline then, we allow them far, far greater autonomy than most Latino parents ever would. We negotiate, where our Bogotano counterparts would command. So right now I’m feeling like a slacker mom with the dirty, unkempt – and occasionally rude – kids.

Respect for authority is shown in other ways too. And I’m more Latina in this than my US American husband is. For example, when we heard that Illyria had shoved her teacher one day, Gimli was all “Go Illyria! Stick it to The Man!” Whereas I was horrified (and the teacher was NOT amused). I remember as a college student being likewise horrified when my peers would mock certain professors behind their backs, giving them humorous but gently ridiculing nicknames. This felt so disrespectful to me, but I think it goes along with a democratizing attitude in a way. So it’s been a little bit of a conundrum how to approach this issue – I want my kids to have an appropriate level of respect for authority, but what is “appropriate” and how it is manifested varies from one context to another…

Recently I read this post by Jen at Here We Go Again, about where we invest our parenting energy. I confess I got all depressed feeling like the laziest parent ever – I don’t do organic foods, or cloth diapering, or homeschooling, and I do the bare minimum when it comes to personal hygiene and appearance. But then I realized that what I do put my parenting energy into is this nomadic life we lead, raising my children cross-culturally, learning multiple languages and contextual contingency of cultural rules.

I remember as a child, around 8 or 9 years old, walking into a room where my parents were meeting with a group of Quechua men all sitting around in a circle. “Saluda!” my mom hissed at me – “Greet them!” But I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or say and I just stood there mute and hid my face. I knew that the rules were different for different groups of people, and I wasn’t sure which rules applied in this situation. Should I shake hands? Kiss cheeks? Did I have to greet each one individually, or could I get away with a group hello? I didn’t know, so I did nothing, and felt the shame of embarrassing my mother.

I know I can’t protect my children from ever experiencing such embarrassment, and I know that with our life choices we are deliberately putting them into situations where they will. At least I can remember what it was like for me, and hopefully help them navigate this life more gracefully than I did. And I believe the tools they’ll gain through this process will benefit them for the rest of their lives.


3 Responses to “Raising kids cross-culturally”

  1. Esperanza Says:

    I remember how tired I used to be every day in Spain; learning another language is exhausting. And yet I hadn’t thought of that when my own daughter started at her immersion school. Thanks for reminding me about that.

    I love the idea of identifying where we put our parenting energy. I think I want to consider that more and then write a post on it. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Rachel Says:

    I think you are doing a wonderful job. Don’t ever feel guilty that you put your parenting priorities in a different place than other parents, it isn’t laziness, it is different views and ideals. While it can be difficult not to compare yourself to other parents, you have had the luxury of viewing parenting in many different cultures and picking how to use the parts you like and ignoring the ones you don’t.

    For what it’s worth I would have found your friends disrespectful too.

    • Elizabeth Says:

      See, that’s why it’s so hard to write about culture – inevitably one ends up making generalizations that just don’t fit across the board. I think the US, there are also huge regional differences – having lived south of the Mason-Dixon line, I think that the behavior of my college friends up north would not have been the same in the south (or would have been viewed differently, for sure).

      The thing is, too, I wish I DID put more work into making my kids look nice in public, and into teaching them better manners as well. Part of the reason is that much of the time I feel like I’m just surviving, because of the stress on me of all this moving around between countries. And the other part is that I just don’t have the backup from my husband. He’s way more tolerant and indulgent of them than I am, and it’s hard to carry the whole load myself.

      Anyway, I’m just griping here. Sorry about that. Thanks for the support, Rachel!

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